Not having a gym or weights is not an excuse to strength train. There are many benefits, including reducing your risk of injury, being stronger, and having more muscle. But not all bodyweight exercises are equal; some will give you better gain than others.
Here’s 11 of the best body weight exercises for BJJ, including a workout you can do at home.
Best Bodyweight Exercises For BJJ
Why towel pull-ups instead of regular pull-ups? You don’t have to use towels in place of the bar, but it’s a useful variation that heavily challenges the hands, grip, and forearms. All important areas to strengthen for jiu-jitsu when gripping a gi or having wrist control.
If you’ve never done towel pull-ups, start by dead-hanging. You can develop immense grip strength this way. Here’s how to do it:
- Throw two hand towels over a pull-up bar. You can use one towel, but it has a higher risk of tearing, and the bar gets in the way of your head, making it awkward. One towel for each hand is better.
- Grip the towel with a full fist so no towel hangs from your fingers. Start with the dead hang to feel if your grip is secure.
- Drive your elbows toward your ribs and let your hands naturally rotate. Slowly lower yourself to a fully extended arm position.
Shoulders take more of a beating than many other joints during BJJ. Ensuring they are strong and stable is part of the process to keep them healthy. Bear crawls force you to support your body while moving on one arm.
It’s a low-level shoulder exercise every jiu-jitsu athlete must be able to do. Here’s the technique:
- Support yourself on your hands and feet, but maintain a flat back position. This will require a 90° knee and hip angle.
- Crawl forward, backward, or sideways by moving the opposite arm and leg together. Keep your back and hips stable.
The crab crawl is like a bear crawl but with your chest facing up. You don’t have to make this a crawl. You can alternate facing up and down positions by pivoting around your shoulder. However, the easiest version is crawling. Here’s how to do it:
- Sitting on the floor, place your hands behind your hips. Elevate your hips to support your body with your hands and feet.
- Crawl forward, backward, or sideways, moving the opposite arm and leg.
Dips are an excellent chest, shoulders, and triceps exercise to develop mass and pressing strength. However, it’s not for everyone. For example, I can’t do dips as it wrecks my sternum. Many people suffer the same issue, hence why I don’t program the dip.
But if you can do it pain-free, it’s an excellent bodyweight pressing exercise that is a level-up from the push-up. Here’s how to do it:
- Support your bodyweight between parallel bars with your arms locked out. Maintain an upright posture as you descend as deep as your mobility and strength allow.
- Press extending your arms to the starting position.
What I love about push-ups is there are many variations. Regular push-ups can be done anywhere but get easy quickly. So, you can elevate your feet to turn them into decline push-ups. Turn them into resistance band push-ups.
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Modifying your hand width is another way to add variation and preferentially target different muscles. Here’s how to do it:
- Start in the push-up plank position with your hands and feet on the floor with a straight line from your head to your heels.
- Maintain this position as you lower your chest to the floor. Your elbows should form a 45° angle to your body.
- Press to the starting position once your chest is an inch from the floor.
Bulgarian Split Squat
I could’ve added the bodyweight squat as a BJJ exercise, but it’s too easy. You’d have to perform 50+ reps to feel anything working. So, the Bulgarian split squat is a better choice. Plus, you get the bonus of lengthening the rear leg quadriceps and hip flexors under load.
It’s a mobility and strength exercise rolled into one. Here’s how to do it:
- Place your rear-leg shoelaces down. Your front foot should allow you to descend vertically while maintaining a near-vertical shin.
- Descend your hips vertically until you reach the bottom position. Drive through your front foot to the starting position.
Rarely do you get out of the axial loading and up and down movements with strength training. Squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc, are all vertically orientated exercises loaded with compressive forces. The lateral lunge takes you out of this and has you moving, decelerating, and pushing laterally.
Having variation like this in your training makes you a more robust jiu-jitsu player, reducing your risk of injury. Here’s how to do it:
- Step to the side, keeping your trailing leg straight and foot planted flat on the floor. As you step and the foot hits the floor, bend your knee and push your hips back into a squat type of motion.
- Get as deep as your trailing leg will allow. You’ll feel an intense stretch on the inside of your thigh. Push back to the starting position.
The Cossack squat is the deeper version of the lateral lunge. It doesn’t require the same deceleration and can be easier on the knees, in my experience. It’s another lateral movement you can use to warm up or as a leg exercise. Here’s how to do it:
- Start in a wide sumo stance. Squat on one leg while keeping the trailing leg straight. However, instead of keeping the foot planted on the floor, you will pivot onto your heel, turning your toes to the ceiling.
- You’ll get deeper into the squat. Push to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
Single Leg Hip Thrust
Developing hip strength and power on your back allows you to shrimp harder to escape bad positions like mount. Bodyweight hip thrusts are too easy, so single variations work better. The hip thrust is better than the glute bridge as you have a greater range of motion, making it more difficult. Here’s how to do it:
- Place your shoulder blades against the edge of a bench and place one foot flat on the floor. Thrust your hips toward the ceiling and tuck your pelvis under to a posterior pelvic tilt position.
- Your legs should form a 90° knee angle with a vertical shin.
This is a hardcore bodyweight core exercise. It’s a leg raise on steroids, as it’s ratcheting the intensity of the isometric. Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on a bench, holding it behind your head. Perform the leg raise, but curl your hips and raise them, making a straight line from your shoulders to your feet.
- Maintain this position as you lower yourself to the bench.
The tried-and-true sit-up. It’s been vilified by fitness professionals with no substantial evidence. In jiu-jitsu, you often perform sit-ups whether you like it or not. Sit sweeps, Octopus guard, and movements like these are sitting up. Here’s how to do it:
- Lying flat on the floor with your feet flat, curl up using your abs. Slowly lower yourself to the floor.
Best Bodyweight Workout For BJJ
A1) Bear Crawl 3 x 10-20 m
A2) Cossack Squat 3 x 8-10/side
B1) Towel Chin-Up 4 x Max reps
C1) Decline Push-Up 60 total reps (finish in least number of sets possible)
D1) Dragon Flag 3 x 8
A1) Single Leg Hip Thrust 3 x 15-20/leg
B1) Bulgarian Split Squat 4 x 10-15/leg
C1) Crab Crawl 2 x 10-20 m
D1) Dips 60 total reps (finish in least number of sets possible)
D2) Pull-Up 30-40 total reps (finish in least number of sets possible)
E1) Sit-Up 3 x 10-15
Is Bodyweight Exercise Enough For BJJ?
I cover this in-depth in my calisthenics for BJJ article. In my experience and opinion, bodyweight exercise is not enough to maximize performance. You lack the heavy resistance stimuli you get from heavy barbells and dumbbells.
The adaptations from maximal strength training cannot be gained from pure bodyweight training. Further, bodyweight exercises become too easy as you get stronger. Soon, you’ll be repping 30 push-ups in a set without feeling tired.
At some point, you need to add resistance to make the exercise harder to progress when strength training for BJJ.
These bodyweight exercises and workouts will build strength, size, and mobility without equipment. Ideally, you’d perform this type of training for short periods before finding a gym or building your home gym as you make better gains with weights.